SAN DIEGO (AP) — Federal investigators examining debris from two planes that collided in clear weather over Southern California this weekend will be looking at the position of the fast-moving jet in relation to the slower, single-engine Cessna as it approached the small airport in San Diego County, officials said Monday.
The twin-engine Sabreliner can travel nearly twice as fast as the Cessna 172, which could have posed a challenge to the pilots and air traffic controllers if it was behind the smaller aircraft, air safety experts told The Associated Press. The Sunday morning crash occurred about 2 miles northeast of the airport, which has two runways, including a longer one typically assigned to larger aircraft. Five people were killed, including three employees of military contractor BAE systems.
A number of accidents have occurred from jets overtaking smaller aircraft, air safety experts said. In 1978, Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 collided with a private Cessna 172 light aircraft over San Diego, killing 144 people in one of the deadliest aircraft disasters in California history.
"While we don't know the crash geometry, we certainly have seen faster jets run over smaller aircraft," said Alan Diehl, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator.
Pilots from both planes communicated with the control tower at Brown Municipal Airport shortly before the midair crash that killed the pilot of the Cessna 172 and four people aboard the Sabreliner, NTSB Andrew Swick said.
The Cessna pilot was a local man who was practicing "touch-and-go," Swick said. That's when a plane briefly touches down, and then immediately increases power to take off again. Once in the air, the pilot turns the plane right to land again. The pilot's name and other details were not released.
The investigation, which could take up to a year to complete, will look at a number of things, including the positions of the two planes, traffic patterns, radar data and the control-tower recordings, Swick said.
Marks showed the right wings on both planes touched at one point, Swick said. The crash debris was being taken to Arizona, where the wreckage will be reconstructed.
The BAE workers were returning from working with the Navy, Swick said.
BAE on Monday identified three of the victims as its employees — Carlos Palos, John Kovach and Jeff Percy — and said they lived in California's Mojave area. The company said a contract worker also was on board, but it did not release the name nor additional details about the employees.
"BAE Systems employees send their thoughts and prayers to the family members and co-workers of those killed," the company said in a statement. "We are committed to supporting investigators as they work to understand how this collision occurred."
Both planes caught fire when they hit the ground and broke apart, said Nick Schuler, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "It appears it was a very violent crash, as you can tell by both aircraft being in multiple pieces," Schuler said.
Crews extinguished several brush fires where the planes came down. One firefighter was taken to the hospital after he suffered a heat-related injury, Schuler said.
Brown Field, a former Naval auxiliary air station, is in the Otay Mesa area about 15 miles southeast of downtown San Diego, near the border with Mexico.